Not too far into 'Insidious,' a stylish and very creepy return to the haunted house thrillers of yore, a thought suddenly crossed my mind. If the makers of 'Paranormal Activity' and 'Saw' are capable of something as good as this, where did they go so wrong with the previous two? That's not to say those movies were terribly bad — although I wouldn't deny the implication being easily found in my wording — but they weren't anywhere nearly as terrifying as this eerie tale of a middle-class family upset by a ghostly presence. Those movies traded off scares and shock value, focusing primarily on one or the other, and seemed as if they couldn't effectively balance the two for the best results.
Granted, this particular flick isn't all that different, depending heavily on standard spooky devices like the random, unexplained sounds around the house, or the sudden, disturbingly-loud increase in the musical score. But director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell, who also partnered to kick-start the 'Saw' franchise, balance those scenes with plenty of visual creepiness. When the screeching cries of the house alarm goes off, dad (Patrick Wilson) runs downstairs to find the front door inexplicably wide open, as if someone ran out quickly. Mom (Rose Byrne) sees faces standing over the baby's crib and the figures of people walking around the house. There are no fake scares here. Filmmakers construct a thick air of alarm and go straight for the throat in order to startle and horrify.
But before we even arrive at that point, Wan establishes a frightful, disconcerting atmosphere very early on. The instant the movie's already ominous title occupies the entire screen like demonic vertical scratches, the room is saturated with piercing music which warns that something sinister this way comes. It feels like a clever combination of 'The Exorcist' and 'The Omen' with a subtle pinch of Hitchcockian suspense. Things really only start getting weird, however, after Dalton's (Ty Simpkins) harmless accident in the attic strangely leads to a mysterious coma. The family's torment grows progressively worse until we eventually find ourselves in an exceedingly fun haunted house thrill ride, which reminded me greatly of Knott's Halloween Haunt back in their heyday.
'Insidious' also comes with an equally fun throwback feel to some classic paranormal flicks of decades ago, as if possessed by them but in a way that still feels original and terrifying. Tobe Hooper's 'Poltergeist' is most obvious when Lin Shaye's clairvoyant medium, Elise Reiner, shows up and gives proper explanation to the strange occurrences surrounding the family. Shaye is quite good in her portrayal, but the role and the things the character can do somehow seem limited so as to create a convenient excuse for dad saving the day. The movie also seems to sidestep 'The Amityville Horror' and goes for more of the classic scare stylings akin to 'Legend of Hell House' and 'The Shining.' And it's all the better for it, because it delivers on what it promises — a frightfully atmospheric good time.
I imagine there will be some serious nitpicks, namely the second half not quite living up to the first, but frankly, without some of that discussion on astral projection, the visually cool trip through "The Further" would not be possible. Besides, the old woman in the black wedding dress more than makes up for any shortcomings. The lipstick-face demon not so much, but he's still sort of cool to look at. In the end, 'Insidious' is a slow-burning tension builder overflowing with hair-raising, spine-tingling atmosphere which can proudly sit alongside such paranormal horror classics as 'The Innocents' and 'The Sentinel.'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment debuts 'Insidious' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked, BD-50 disc and housed in a blue eco-vortex case. At startup, viewers can enjoy a collection of skippable trailers before being greeted by the standard menu option with music and full-motion clips.
Filmed entirely with the use of HD cameras , 'Insidious' materializes onto Blu-ray with an excellent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.40:1).
The direct digital-to-digital transfer shows great fine object and textural details although it does look very much like home video, sometimes distractingly so. Mid to close-ups fare best, revealing wrinkles and tiny arbitrary facial blemishes in the actors. Although comfortably bright and consistent with sharp whites, contrast comes off rather dull, which makes facial complexions often appear somewhat pale and lifeless. Black levels, on the other hand, are rich and full-bodied without ruining any visibility within shadows or the many dimly-lit sequences, which is crucial for the movie's scare factor. Colors are intentionally muted, adding to the plot's eerie atmosphere, but primaries are accurate and bold though there is some slight banding during "The Further" sequence.
All in all, a very strong digital-to-digital transfer, albeit it one that shows the look inherent to the medium.
Leaving a better impression is this very entertaining DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, terrifically supplementing the on-screen scares with random creepy noises.
To be fair, most of the rear activity is reserved for sudden, loud effects meant to jump viewers out of their seats, but they are discrete and convincing nonetheless, generating a frightful atmosphere that's a great deal of fun. The rest of the imaging is quite persuasive and engaging, giving the lossless mix a strong presence with believable movement between channels and a sharply-defined, room-penetrating mid-range. Dialogue and character interaction remains crysal-clear and intelligible amid the action. With a deeply commanding and highly-responsive low-end adding to the standard shock tactics, the high-rez track is fantastic at delivering a spine-chilling experience to a hair-rising ghost story.
'Insidious' arrives day-and-date with the same bonus material as its DVD counterpart.
From the makers of 'Saw' and 'Paranormal Activity,' we have a surprisingly fun and spooky haunted-house thriller, full of eerie atmosphere and nicely setup frightful jumps. The Blu-ray debuts with an excellent audio and video presentation that perfectly serves up the scares, but the supplemental collection is sadly lacking. With Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, and Lin Shaye, the horror flick still serves up just the right mood for a scary movie night. Worth a look.